Pat Riley speaks about why he believes Heat can improve this season
The records, at the moment, are the same, but the approach couldn’t be more different.
South Florida’s NFL franchise — the one that finished two games below .500 this season — has prioritized getting a high draft pick in 2020, concedes it has no particular interest in winning 6 to 10 games next season and stated, rather remarkably, that it fired its head coach because he wants to win in 2019.
Meanwhile, our NBA franchise also stands two games under .500 but doesn’t want to play for a high draft pick or prioritize player development over winning, even with a roster that seems likely to be ousted again in the first round of the playoffs, if it makes the postseason at all.
At 22-24, the Heat entered Thursday in eighth in the East, just 1.5 games ahead of No. 9 Detroit. Amid the mediocrity, some fans yearn for a lottery pick in a potentially loaded NBA Draft.
But while efforts continue to thin a roster with too many similarly skilled players, Heat officials privately say tanking isn’t for them, because they don’t want to subject their fans or themselves to years of losing with the hope the franchise will get lucky in the lottery.
“Do the history on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told SI.com last month. “What franchises have had the most enduring sustainable success over the last 24 years? We’re up there with the top three or four. The teams that constantly tank, I don’t know where they are.”
And so there will be no approach pursued like the one accepted by Friday’s opponent, Cleveland, which is rebuilding after losing LeBron James.
There’s another layer to this, too: A case could be made to play the kids even more.
But Spoelstra insists that’s not the way he’s thinking. And there is no missive from Heat president Pat Riley to play the young players with an eye toward the future.
Four of the Heat’s young players, those who could be here long-term, already are part of the rotation: Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Derrick Jones Jr. and Bam Adebayo.
But while Richardson is first on the team in minutes per game and Winslow third, Adebayo is eighth and Jones 12th. And Miami hasn’t felt inclined to offer up recent NBA minutes for its two-way contract players Duncan Robinson or Yante Maten (who has been out with an injured ankle since Jan. 2).
Though it might be interesting to see what Adebayo and Jones could do in more extended minutes, the Heat will not give them more playing time merely to get a greater sense of their ceiling. And while it would be helpful to see what Adebayo could do alongside Hassan Whiteside, they have played only 13 minutes together all season.
Spoelstra, in a discussion with the Miami Herald about the topic, emphasized that winning remains the priority, that decisions won’t be made that place player development — which the Heat also values — ahead of that.
“The main thing is always the main thing for us,” Spoelstra said of winning, borrowing an old Riley line.
But is player development at the forefront of Spoelstra’s thinking more this season, with the Heat needing to know exactly what it has with its young players?
“Not any more or less,” he said. “We are an organization that is committed to winning and an organization that’s always committed to development. And it’s not exclusive to young players.”
But if it’s close between a young player and an older one, should Spoelstra lean toward playing the young one more this season? He said absolutely not.
“It has to be earned,” he said. “That makes it that much more valuable.”
And Riley hasn’t pushed him to play the young guys, Spoelstra indicated.
“We always talk about the team every single day,” Spoelstra said. “But it’s never a discussion about not winning.”
On this issue, Dwyane Wade said earlier this season he sometimes will sacrifice late-game shots in order to give Richardson a chance to develop in that role.
“It’s trying to continue to build him to be hopefully the focal point of this franchise,” Wade said last month. “All year, he’s had big shots and big moments, and I’ve gotten out of his way on a lot of them.”
Spoelstra has no issue with Wade thinking along those lines.
“Dwyane is a fantastic mentor and has that maturity to know big picture for us to maximize all of our strengths and guys have to gain confidence,” Spoelstra said. “The more strengths we have, particularly in clutch moments, the more dangerous a team we are. Dwyane understands that.”
So does giving young players experience taking late-game shots ever enter Spoelstra’s mind when he’s drawing up late-game plays?
“Not from the standpoint you’re thinking of,” he said. “But if everybody in the building knows we’re going to Dwyane every single time, that doesn’t benefit us. There has to be some element of deception too.”
For the Heat, it’s a double bonus — so to speak — when development, such as Winslow evolving at point guard, coincides with winning.
“And when it’s earned,” Spoelstra said, “it has 10 times the impact.”
But there hasn’t been enough of that winning recently, with four losses in five games putting the Heat 2.5 games behind No. 6 Brooklyn.